BARBARA AMIEL’S dog Arpad comforted and protected her during her darkest days… Now he’s nearing the end – and she’s written an exquisitely moving tribute every pet owner will relate to
Spring of 2008, and the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida sparkled in the sun, and I was a wasteland. Worse, a silly, frightened woman.
My husband, Conrad Black, was in prison while I lived alone in a large seashore house where migrants would occasionally wash up under our stairs down to the beach, sometimes alive and sometimes tragically dead.
They weren’t my main fear, though I regretted the lack of a man in the house to deal with them. It was the home- grown invaders who now and then robbed and assaulted. And the terrible silence of a house in which no one lived but my shadow.
‘Don’t stop at traffic lights if you’re driving home late at night,’ the local deputy police chief had told me, after I explained I would definitely not follow his advice and get a gun.
‘Just a quick look both ways and then drive fast through the intersection or they’ll bust your windscreen.’
‘Get a Kuvasz,’ my former husband had advised more prudently. ‘They’ll protect you.’ Being Hungarian, he was referring to the breed of dog that had guarded the junk yard near his home in Budapest.
I took his advice and got, in fairly quick succession, two Kuvasz — Maya and Arpad. Maya, my Empress, died of a deadly splenetic cancer in 2020, aged 12 — a decent lifespan for a large-breed dog. Only Arpad survives. Now the tables are turned — I protect him.
Devotion: Writer Barbara Amiel won’t leave the side of Arpad, her beloved Kuvasz whose health is declining
Every morning, around 7.30am, my herniated discs squeak as I pull myself up from the air mattress on our dining-room floor, where I’ve been sleeping since June 2021.
This is not due to a rift with my husband, but a concern for the near 13-year-old semi-paralysed dog who can no longer mount the stairs to our bedroom.
Mornings, he needs help to leave the house, and at night I can hear the panicked wheezing and small noises when he requires assistance with his breathing. There isn’t much longer to go and he needs me near, just as I needed him so desperately for most of his life. It’s a fair exchange.
The night Arpad arrived was muggy and about 80f. At 1.30am, I stood in the cargo section of Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport waiting for the eight-weeks-less-a day puppy. He had travelled 16 hours from Montana in America’s North-West.
I heard him first, an irrepressible bark somewhere in the back of the hall, and then the cargo handlers put a crate in front of me. A bundle of white fur jumped out, already about 16lb, wagging his tail and immediately trying to ravish the quiet lady-like lapdog being released next to him — much to the annoyance of the lapdog woman waiting for her.
Yep, I thought. This is definitely my dog.
When I brought him home to his crate and shut the door for the night, he began to cry — the first time away from his mother and litter of nine siblings. There were no smells he could understand. Maya, then nearly two years old, watched him indifferently.
Finally, some dormant maternal instinct kicked in, and she wandered over to the outside of his crate, put her wet nose through its crosswires and her long, furry body up against the side.
He snuggled into her smells and the crying stopped. He would idolise her all her life.
I had already registered his name with the American Kennel Club — ‘The Grand Prince Arpad’ — in deference to his ancestry.
Prince Arpad had moved the Magyars and dogs into the Carpathian basin around the 10th century. Later, the first King Matthias of Hungary doted on his Kuvasz and knew, as I do, that they were far more reliable than people — and hypoallergenic as well. Only nobility were permitted to have these majestic, all-white long-haired dogs of Tibetan/ Asian background.
But kingdoms pass and royal hunting fields become more utilitarian pastures. Kuvasz excelled as working farm dogs, guarding owners and flocks until the tragedy of World War II when the Germans invaded Hungary and shot every Kuvasz that confronted them. By 1945, there were said to be fewer than two dozen in the entire country.
This is a breed that will fight to the death to safeguard its territory and owner. No special training needed — it’s the instinct bred over 1,000 years. ‘Well,’ I said to my little white ball of fur: ‘I’m your flock. Protect me please.’
He turned out to be an overachiever. He saved my mental health. Then he saved my life.
As far as I was concerned, my life wasn’t worth that much back then. Until it was endangered: a year later, 4.30am and I lay in bed writing a letter to Conrad when the doorknobs of my locked bedroom doors turned. Frozen with fear, I couldn’t move.
Almost simultaneously, my two Kuvasz flew past my bed growling like something out of The Hound Of The Baskervilles. They literally hurled their bodies up against the door. Now I knew this was not a delusional response made worse by the meds I was taking. The Kuvasz had heard — and smelled — an intruder on their territory.
Barbara Amiel in the snow with her Kuvasz dogs
I ran into the bathroom and called the police, who arrived within five minutes. The intruder had left. Indeed, the police nearly left, too, when confronted with my dogs.
Two nights later a man was arrested after attempting to suffocate a 68-year-old woman in her bedroom less than a mile away. It was only the luck of her son upstairs that got the pillow off her face in time to prevent her murder. The police called to tell me.
For the next ten years of his life, Arpad became my shadow. I was never alone again. Whatever the FBI or lawyers threw at me during the seemingly endless years of my husband’s battle against criminal charges, I could take my dogs for an hour-long walk and calm my breathing down.
When I sat for three years writing my memoirs, Arpad curled up on the daybed in my office for the entire slog and slept with open eyes, watching me.
Maya remained largely outside in the daytime, conscientiously patrolling our large property and putting the fear of God into any of the Press that tried to climb the fence for photos.
Words are threadbare for what these two dogs did for me. Now Arpad alone lies with me: outside my open office door during the day and the dining room at night, both just off the front hall where his illness has imprisoned him.
His breathing is quiet when he’s sleeping and breathing through his nose, but when he wakes he opens his mouth, pants, and discovers trouble.
Laryngeal paralysis has silenced his bark, the muscles around his trachea are failing and the vet says that it’s like trying to breathe through a straw.
Panic makes the situation worse, and at night when I hear him in distress, my getting up and stroking his head calms him until he falls asleep again.
On top of this, Degenerative Myelopathy (the canine version of Motor Neurone Disease) is taking away his ability to walk. He hobbles on bloodied, knuckled paws with no feeling in them, and his legs cross over and trip him up. This is what old age and the coming of death looks like. Brutal.
Arpad was car-crash handsome, Maya quite beautiful, and walking the two of them became as distinctive as walking two polar bears — which they were often called
He lies between two Dyson fans on the floor that mimic the breezes he loves. A couple of times a day I can help him navigate to the grass outside while I hold his ‘Help ’Em Up Harness’ so I can (just) lift his 115 lb weight.
We sit together, watching the trees and birds, and sometimes, when I take him to a grassy knoll by the gates, he can see people and cars.
But then he tries to bark at dogs going by, as he always did, and his strangled voice is barely audible.
He can’t understand why and he keeps trying. He’s slowly suffocating and very soon — weeks, not months — I will have to act. He still rumbles with pleasure when I scratch him and he still eats his meals, though not as much.
But keeping a stoic dog for yourself when they are suffering silent, blind pain is a selfish and cruel indulgence.
Every dog owner thinks their dog is special — and in my view every dog is, whether mutt, designer mix or purebred.
In the UK, I found a lot of snobbery among purebred dog owners who sniff, even sneer, at the new 60-plus ‘doodle’ breeds.
Just because breeders have mixed poodles with every possible dog breed doesn’t mean that the result is somehow inauthentic, or they are ‘lesser’ dogs.
Doodles are wonderful dogs imbued with that marvellous poodle intelligence, even if their new breed names are twee: cockapoos, labradoodles, bernedoodles.
No one I’ve met in the UK has an opinion on Kuvasz, mainly because there don’t seem to be any here. Kuvasz aren’t even properly recognised by the UK Kennel Club yet — they’re put on the Imported Breed Register — which is odd really, since they are a European dog and have been fully recognised for 91 years by the American Kennel Club.
I suppose British flocks haven’t got the sort of predators that U.S. and European flocks face: wolves, big cats, coyotes, bears. So British farmers may not think of guard dogs, only herding ones — the shelties, collies and Welsh corgis.
During the pandemic, dogs of every kind were brought home as a distraction and then, painfully, some abandoned when life normalised, some even with their muzzles taped so they couldn’t bark or eat.
And yet, a dog wants only one thing: to please its owner. Human beings are, I think, the only species on earth that deliberately tortures other species — and each other.
When Arpad arrived in my life, I had been in a horribly depressed limbo, hair unwashed, crumpled clothes complete with nightly contemplation of pills and ways out.
But Arpad was car-crash handsome, Maya quite beautiful, and walking the two of them became as distinctive as walking two polar bears — which they were often called.
My spirits were lifted by their buoyancy and happy sniffs of the air and ineffectual chases of seagulls; I began to dress up tidily for my dogs and almost felt like the postcard beauty with two Borzois.
Happily, Conrad returned from prison and for the first time met the dogs. Maya quickly sized him up as no bother. Arpad was not quite the same.
The first time I left Conrad alone with the dogs, I gave him my serious talk about how to handle Arpad: ‘Keep your eye on him all the time. He’s still a puppy in spite of his size, and doesn’t like to be alone yet.’
I reminded him of the ritual chant by the Westminster Dog Show commentator on the appearance of the Kuvasz in the ring: ‘Here come the beautiful Kuvasz. These dogs are not for the first-time owner or the timid.’
‘Yes, yes, Barbara. You’d think I’d never had a dog.’ (He did once, long ago in his childhood — a standard poodle.)
I had been away about ten minutes when my phone rang. As Conrad had sat, reading the memoirs of some ghastly general in some remote European 19th-century war, Arpad had mounted our bed, urinated on it, torn up the sheet and mattress and was spitting horsehair balls.
Maya, my Empress, died of a deadly splenetic cancer in 2020, aged 12 — a decent lifespan for a large-breed dog, only Arpad survives, now the tables are turned — I protect him
Conrad was enraged. Arpad was indifferent to him. It took Maya to calm the two males down.
When Conrad was again absent in prison for another nine months, Arpad cleared his mind of this biped intruder.
On my husband’s return, the interruption of a chat I was having with Arpad involved a brass candelabra from the hall table, a rolled-up newspaper and the hideous choice about which to use on the snarling dog. A swipe and Arpad backed down.
From that moment, Conrad was allowed to sleep in my bed and was accepted as a member of the pack, albeit a junior one.
Looking at my almost inert dog now, I can remember, painfully, the old days. Arpad bemused when a butterfly perched on his nose. Sharing an ice-cream cone with him off Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue. Crying into Arpad’s fur on returning from a prison visit to Conrad while Maya licked the side of my face sympathetically.
Arpad celebrating with me when I finished a chapter of my memoirs — he’d have a piece of cheddar and I’d have a piece of pizza. Or was it the other way around?
Arpad, never ill a day in his life, till 13 months ago when, on June 5, he found he couldn’t go upstairs and from that moment on, the travail and tears. Memories, and the sweetest one will be this: my pleasure on waking at 7.30am to his grateful welcome and to my knowledge that I can give back to him a little of what he’s given me.
Rudyard Kipling knew . . .
‘You will discover how much you care/ And will give your heart to a dog to tear!